Sunday, 25 December 2016

Cthulhu Confidential (Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane)

I own a boardgame I never play. It's called B-17: Queen of the Skies, an old Avalon Hill title from 1983. It's designed as a solo experience but you can, with some modification, enjoy it as a two-player game.

You fly a B-17 from an airfield in Britain to somewhere in Occupied Europe or Germany, in hope of bombing a strategic target back to the stone age. It kinda works. If you can throw yourself into the experience guiding a heavily armed flying colander, engines sputtering, crew bleeding out, all the way back to its home airfield after a raid is a lot of fun.

I stopped playing when I realized that, mechanically speaking, all I was doing was rolling D6s time and time again. I didn't choose my target: that was a D6 roll. I didn't choose where I was in the formation: that was a D6 roll. I didn't choose the weather: that was a D6 roll. I definitely did not choose when the flak opened up on me or enemy fighters attacked: that was a D6 roll. When the enemy attacked I chose which MG gunners fired back and when. That was it. Resolving what happened next was a D6 roll. What was hit, and how badly, was a D6 roll. And so on.

B-17 colored my opinion of solo and one-player games for decades to come. I stopped looking for one player fun. B-17 was, in a very real sense, why I got into RPGs in the first place: RPGs offered multiplayer, where several like-minded souls got together and invented adventures.

Along comes Cthulhu Confidential, the One-to-One experience. One Keeper, one Player.

Hmmmm, I think.


It's a lot of fun.

It's basically GUMSHOE, so if you're used to that system then you'll find little to puzzle you here. The investigative and general abilities are pretty much as you remember them. The only investigative ability that's in any way unusual is Inspiration, which has been used by GUMSHOE before but not often. Also, Health is gone, passing off some of its minor poison-resisting and other active test functions to Athletics. There's a new general ability, Devices, that replaces Mechanical and Electrical Repair. That's it. If you've ever played a GUMSHOE title before, you know what to expect.

For those of you who haven't, or who need a refresher: investigative abilities are used to gather clues. The core or really important clues are always given free. Investigative abilities are used for all the extra bits of information you may need either to make more sense of what's going on, or to give you some advantage. Investigative abilities never fail. You always get the information; it's what you do with it that counts.

General abilities are used when failure is a real possibility. Driving a car in a high-speed chase? You'll need to make a Driving test. Failure may mean you wreck your car, success may mean the enemy wrecks their car, and so on. General abilities aren't about getting information. They're about action, and the consequences of action. Also known as the Mother of Mercy Moment.

There are two new mechanics which will, I suspect, take some getting used to. One is the Push system. You start the game with four Pushes, and can gain more through play. Pushes are used in combination with investigative abilities, when the player wants to gain a specific extra advantage. Say your character has been dosed with a Mickey Finn. Spending a Push in combination with Chemistry allows your character to concoct a simple antidote, using only the contents of an ordinary medicine cabinet. A minor but important advantage, since succumbing to the Mickey probably doesn't end the story. Instead succumbing shapes the narrative in a particular way. With the Push, on the other hand, other options open up: you could fake unconsciousness, either to spring an ambush or to gather information while goons stand chatting over your 'sleeping' carcass. Or you could run away, or come up with another idea. In short, you have more choices with a Push than you have without one.

As a mechanic Pushes remind me strongly of Nights Black Agent's Cherries, and may have the same problem. Cherries are great but I've noticed players, particularly inexperienced players, sometimes forget to use them. This can lead to issues when a character who ought to have the advantage in an encounter doesn't use her general abilities to their best effect because she's forgotten she has Cherry freebies coming to her. The Keeper may want to remind the player about Pushes, especially first time players.

The other is the Challenge test system. In GUMSHOE up to this point a test is usually part of an extended sequence. Take combat: any one combat might involve several different consecutive rolls as the combatants dodge, shoot, engage in hand-to-hand, always chipping away at the target's Health stat. Even a fight with Mooks might want several different tests in the same scene. Now it's all one test, or Challenge, in which the active party - you, the player - have to roll equal to or greater than a specified Difficulty.

Sound familiar? Well, it ought to, but here's the rub: it's all one roll per Challenge. There's no 'OK, that didn't work, so let me try this,' or 'OK, he's hurt, now I'll press the advantage with my other general ability, or just keep going with this one.' Nope. All one roll. With one, two or possibly three D6.

Aha! Something new has been added!

Up to now general abilities were a kind of high-stakes poker match, in which the player wagers a certain number of points from his starting pool in hope that whatever is bet, plus a die roll, is enough to beat the Difficulty of the test. In One to One there are no pools. The player often only has one D6 at his disposal, with no modifiers, and the Challenge's Difficulty number is the X factor. Some Challenges are more consequential than others, so this X factor may change dramatically from Challenge to Challenge. It's a straight-up test, in which the result can be Advantage, Hold or Setback.

Gaining an Advantage is a success with extra benefits, probably conferring an Edge which can be used in future Challenges. A Hold is a no-harm-no-foul situation, in which you don't get exactly what you want but at least didn't get a penalty either. A Setback is a failure, probably accompanied by a problem of some kind.

You'll note I said problem, not Unqualified Failure, OMG, Your Character Is Dead, Dead, Dead. Like all GUMSHOE products One-to-One is all about the story, which means the scenario usually isn't written in such a way that a Challenge failure early on kills the story. A character can still die - messily, unpleasantly, weeping like a baby - but the scenario designer would prefer that this happens towards the end of the narrative. If the player deliberately orchestrates things such that death at the halfway point is the only logical consequence of the player's actions, c'est la vie. But it's unsporting, darn it, and not the hallmark of a true gentleperson.

Oh, and those Problems I mentioned? They're fun. O so very much fun. Problems have counterparts, Edges, but Keepers and Players may come to love Problems more.

Problems and Edges are story beats. Edges give you some kind of story benefit, usually in a specified scene or circumstance. Problems give you a story problem to overcome. Since Confidential is a Noir setting each character starts with a 'free' Problem, such as:

Heedless. You never met a warning you couldn't ignore. Take a -1 penalty on all Sense Trouble checks. Discard this when you gain your first Sense Trouble Setback.

So in other words, discard Heedless when you do something that almost certainly earns you another Problem. Cunning.

You can see why the player may come to love Problems. Edges are just temporary bennies, but Problems push you towards doing something, in narrative, to deal with your Problem. This in turn may lead to other story complications, and so on and on. Problems help shape the narrative, in other words. Edges simplify the narrative, and film noir has never been about simplifying anything.

Each time your character earns an Edge or a Problem you are given a card describing that Edge or Problem, which you keep until such time as it's expended or resolved. At that point, and only at that point, do you discard the card. This means you can still have Problem cards in your hand when the scenario ends, and that can lead to all kinds of long-term consequences depending on the nature of the Problem. Or short-term, if the Problem leads to the character's demise.

Incidentally for those Keepers out there thinking 'that sounds like a lot of cards,' yes, it does, and yes, it will be. Capital Color, one of three scenarios in Cthulhu Confidential, has 42 individual Problem cards unique to that scenario and 18 Edges, or 60 scenario-specific cards total. As Keeper when designing one of these scenarios you should bear in mind you'll need to come up with roughly the same number, not including generic Problems and Edges the character might earn through actions, and thus Challenges, not anticipated in the scenario's design.

It seems like a chore, but really isn't once you get the hang of it. These Challenges all have roughly the same structure, and there's a handy cheat sheet for working out how to scale an individual Challenge up or down. After you've done this once, probably sweating bullets over each Challenge, you'll find the next set of Challenges with their consequential Problems and Edges much easier to create.

"But what about the Mythos?" I hear you scream. "I want to be driven completely bonkers!" So you shall, with Mythos or horror-based Challenges. These work in broadly the same way as other Challenges, in that Edges can be earned and Setbacks leave you with a Problem that has to be dealt with before the scenario ends. Except that where most Problems can be resolved mechanically - like Heedless, which is discarded after earning a Sense Trouble setback - these Problems are usually dealt with narratively.

Take a scene in which you find the decapitated corpse of a young actress. This non-Mythos horror-based Challenge can lead to a Setback, earning not one but two Problems. The first is mechanical:

Decapitated Starlet. The image of Leona's head at your feet burns itself to the inside of your retinas. Whenever your mind wanders, a vivid memory of it assails your consciousness. -3 penalty on all General or Mental Challenges. Counter by Taking Time to submit to narcosynthesis under the care of a shrink.

The other can only be dealt with narratively:

Vengeful. If you find out who killed Leona, you will be compelled to avenge her, risks be damned.

Where Decapitated Starlet can be dealt with by the player without incurring further risks or Challenges, Vengeful sets the player up for a future Challenge. In this particular example it's presumed that the Challenge will occur at some point during the scenario, so there's no long-term mechanical consequences to complicate the character's life after the scenario concludes. There may be narrative consequences, but not mechanical.

Mythos Challenges are a little different. As with Decapitated Starlet a Mythos Challenge can, on a Setback roll, result in Problems and Extra Problems. These Mythos Problems can be dealt with by spending Mythos-based special Edges but, if not dealt with before the end of the scenario, the character may suffer significant narrative consequences that must be dealt with before any other unresolved Problems are dealt with.

For example, in a Challenge where your character discovers blasphemous, Mythos-inspired artwork, rolls a Setback, and earns this Problem:

Censorious. Mythos Shock. To maintain your sense that the painting hasn't affected you, you must take any measures, no matter how mad, to destroy it once its usefulness to the case has ended. It doesn't count as admitting anything if you set it on fire and never, ever think about it again.

The character must, if this Shock isn't countered by an Edge before the end of the scenario, destroy the painting. The potential narrative consequences are significant, but then so is permanent incarceration in a place with soft walls and crayons.

I've rabbited on long enough, particularly on this Sunday of all Sundays. So, scores on doors: should you get Cthulhu Confidential?

Keepers definitely should. It's a very interesting sourcebook with three complicated, compelling scenarios, each of which has its own intriguing Noir protagonist. There's more than enough here to help you design complex narratives of your own. You'll want the .pdf as well, even if you're a die-hard book lover, since you'll need all the Generic Problems and Edges for easy printing.

Players should think very carefully about this. If you're into collecting all things Cthulhu then yes, please. However over 180 pages of this 311 page book are scenarios, and unless you're the kind of fella who likes spoilers you may find this troublesome. That said, once you've played through one or more of the scenarios this stops being an issue, at which point you should rush to your friendly local whateveritmaybe and buy this book.

It's a lot of fun, is what I'm saying.


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